Hi everyone! The November issue of Horse Sport contains an interview I conducted with Canadian Eventing High Performance Technical Advisor Clayton Fredericks, as he approaches the first anniversary of his position. Below, please find the extended interview, which contains a great deal more than there was room to print in the magazine. Enjoy!
On Cultivating Greatness
An Interview with Canadian Eventing Team Technical Advisor Clayton Fredericks
When David O’Connor stepped down as the Technical Advisor for Canada’s Eventing High Performance Program following the London Olympics, he was replaced by Australian Olympian Clayton Fredericks. Taking up the role nearly a year ago, Fredericks brought to the position an impressive track record: individual silver and team bronze medals at WEG 2006, team silver at the 2008 Olympics, World Cup titles in 2005 and 2008 and the win at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky CCI4*. When Fredericks accepted the job with Canadian Eventing, it was less than six months since his last Australian Team effort, as a member of the 2012 Olympic Team in London. Following in O’Connor’s footsteps, 45 year old Fredericks inherited a highly functioning program that had benefited from his predecessor’s commitment and experience. But as Fredericks sees it, Canadian Eventing still has some distance to go in order to achieve the goal of becoming a world power in the sport.
In this exclusive interview with Horse Sport, Fredericks shares his first impressions of Canada’s top eventing athletes and discusses the challenges ahead for the country’s high performance program.
HS: Congratulations on the recent successes of Rebecca Howard and Jessica Phoenix in England. You must be pleased with their results at Burghley and Blenheim, particularly in terms of looking ahead to next year’s World Equestrian Games.
CF: Yes, we’re certainly in the team building phase, and it’s good to get those results at this time. The riders at the moment have been told that each of them needs to have as many horses qualified and ready to go for team selection as possible.
HS: I spoke with David O’Connor on a regular basis over the six years that he worked with the Canadian Team. A recurring theme in our conversations was the chronic lack of depth when it came to the number of three and four star horses in Canada. Does that remain the biggest challenge for Canadian Eventing?
CF: The biggest problem I see is there really isn’t an owner culture. In Europe it’s a given thing that people want to be involved in the sport. This is something we really need to focus on. How do we get owners? Canada’s got great riders. They really have. But experience comes only from getting the runs. The trouble is, a lot of the riders don’t get that opportunity. They don’t have the funds to run more than one horse, which leaves them limited as to how much experience they can gain.
HS: You mentioned a lack of funds. The shortage of top horses and the shortage of dollars go hand in hand, don’t they?
CF: It all comes back to the fact of money, and Canada needs more owners in the sport. In these modern times I think there is a need to be a bit inventive in attracting more owners. Syndication is a huge opportunity. It takes pressure off the rider because it’s not just one person putting up all the money. It also gives more people the thrill of being involved. We need to look at that as a way forward. We need to develop concrete plans as to how we develop syndicates. We have the riders. It’s a matter of whether we have the depth of horse power, which I don’t think we do.
Finding the horses has never been a problem for me. I can certainly help in that regard, but again it comes back to funding. It doesn’t need to be about going out and buying experienced horses. The riders in Canada have the ability to develop horses themselves, but the riders have to be on the right horses to start with. They can’t be starting with problems. You can change a horse and improve it, but you can’t make it into something it’s never going to be. There’s still very much a culture that every horse has the chance to be at the top, but that’s not the case. There’s always the odd freak in the sport that will prove you wrong, but you need the foundation: good movement, a good temperament, and the ability to gallop and jump.
HS: When the short format was introduced at major championships, there were predictions that Thoroughbreds would lose their dominance to Warmbloods. That seems to be what’s happening over time. Do you think it’s becoming a matter of having a horse that’s a good enough mover to win the increasingly competitive dressage phase?
CF: I think you need horses that really can take the training. They’re not all great movers. Sam [the reigning Olympic and World Champion ridden by Michael Jung] is not the best mover in the world. It’s all about the horses that can take the training and have the temperaments for it. I still believe a good Thoroughbred is as good as any horse. It’s also about having jumpers at the end of the day. It’s a bit of a misconception that the Germans are so good at the dressage. At the last few championships the Aussies have led the dressage. Where the Germans have really got the edge is jumping clear on the last day. They are on really good jumping horses and they’ve produced those horses well. They’ve been able to gallop cross country because they aren’t fighting their horses all the time. I think the breeding of event horses is more for the jumping ability than for the dressage. The most hereditary trait in horses is jumping ability.
HS: Taking the job with Canada must have forced you to consider your own competitive career. Are you finished with elite sport as a rider, or do you think you will go back at some point in the future?
CF: I don’t really know the answer to that question. I haven’t even been through a year yet with the Canadian Team. I’m enjoying competing through others, and I’m enjoying looking at the sport from a different perspective. Rarely in my competitive career did I get a chance to sit back and look at the sport. That has been a bit of a breath of fresh air for me. Whether I use that change in view toward a coaching career or an individual competitive career, I can’t say right now. At the moment I am enjoying what I’m doing with the Canadians. I feel competitive when those guys are in the ring. You can’t have been a top class competitor and not wish you were out there having another crack. Sadly, I was unable to compete with the horse I had for Rolex this year. The horse is now back in work after an injury, but I have to have a conversation to see if I will get to compete that horse again. I do try to keep my hand in the sport as a rider. It keeps me sharp and on the ball as a coach. I never wanted to become a has-been rider who has turned to coaching as a last resort. I won’t stop riding, though of course it’s not possible to compete at the championship level with the job I have now.
HS: What has the schedule been like for you this year working with Canada’s riders, far flung as they are?
CF: I haven’t actually got to the point of counting my days yet for this year. I think the time commitment needs to be flexible. Some years will require more time than others. This is actually the hardest part about trying to continue riding; the job has taken me overseas a lot. The benefit is that I’ve been able to see my daughter every month, but on the other hand I’ve also spent so much time over here in North America. And the Canadians have people everywhere! I used to think the Australians were bad, but we really have just two groups – one in Australia and one in the UK. Shandiss and Jordan McDonald have now joined the group in the UK so there are four based there, and there is one in France. There are riders in Toronto, Montreal, California, up in BC and some down here in Florida. I spend a lot of time on a plane. When I was a kid I always dreamed of having a job that would take me flying all over the world. Be careful what you wish for!
HS: In addition to the success he achieved with the Canadian Eventing Team at championships, David O’Connor worked on developing the infrastructure and support team behind the riders. When you took the job as Team Advisor, were you impressed with the program and the people?
CF: I looked at it and at the people involved. It looked like a pretty organized situation. For me that was important. There is nothing worse than being left on your own to do everything yourself.
HS: Did you decide to establish a base in Ocala, FL before you took the job with Canada?
CF: I’d been intending to do things in America for a long time. We had been to Ocala and had a look around. I felt it was a wonderful place, but I hadn’t committed to doing anything out here. Having got the job with Canada fast forwarded my plans.
HS: Do you own your facility in Ocala or rent it?
CF: I’m based at Greenbrier Farm, which is owned by another Canadian, Nicole Shinton. It’s a fabulous facility. Right now its mid-day and I’m here on a horse, still riding in the shade of these granddaddy oak trees. And most importantly, there’s a swimming pool, which is absolutely necessary if you are riding horses in Florida!
HS: Looking ahead to Normandy next year, are you confident about Canada’s team prospects?
CF: I think we’ve got a great team of riders and a great group of contestants for the team. We’ve been pretty strong with our goals as far as scores are concerned. The focus from my perspective is that the riders have to work hard on the areas of their performance that are not cutting it.
I believe we have to qualify for Rio at the WEG, and not rely on the Pan Ams if we want to be a force in the next Olympic Games. At WEG we have to stand up and be counted. We also really need some good performances so that we can follow up and gain the funding for the riders so that they can continue to achieve their goals.
HS: I sometimes think of Canada’s situation in comparison to other countries that also struggle with size and distance, such as Australia and especially New Zealand. What kind of impact on future generations is made when a country has a real super-star, someone like Mark Todd?
CF: I’m certain it doesn’t hurt. It does a lot for a country to have a super star. It inspires others to go on and want to be like him. When an athlete gets up and has a good result, it pushes his countrymen on, and it sets a new bar. We are starting to see that with Rebecca Howard. Even though she hasn’t yet reached her full potential, she’s really cutting the mustard at the top level. But if you compare Canada to the Kiwis, they have a team of at least six riders who are riding multiple horses. Each rider has a team of four and five horses at three star level and above. With the exception of Jessica Phoenix, and Selena O’Hanlon – who has perhaps three in that top grade – what Canadians have more than two horses? Andrew Nicholson and Jock Paget have got massive teams of horses. I think Rebecca’s proven herself with her performances, and yet she has one other horse, at the novice level.
HS: It sounds like we are headed back to the topic with which we started our conversation…
CF: People have got to stand up and get more horses under their riders. If you want super stars you have to support them with horses. Owners and people on the sidelines in Canada are all talking about how to get it done. They need to stop talking and put their hands in their pockets. These young guns cannot ride broomsticks. We need some Canadian pride out there.
HS: It’s disappointing to note that Canada’s team silver medal at the 2010 WEG seems to have had little impact on the support for our riders. Do you see it that way too?
CF: If you look at that team from 2010 some of those riders won’t even to be in contention for next year because they don’t have big enough teams to sustain careers at the top. If you’re lucky you might get two championships out of a horse. We need to get more quality horses and produce them. When it comes to producing horses, it’s a numbers game up to a point, but the better quality horses you have, the fewer you need. I can find the horses and I think we have the riders good enough to do the job. It’s up to the rest of the country now to put up the money and support them.
HS: The Canadian Eventing Team has been criticized in the past for lacking the confidence it takes to be an international force. If that’s true, what’s the solution?
CF: One of the riders I worked with recently was keen to get better and asked me, ‘what can I practice?’ I said, ‘just practice winning.’ It’s important to have practice at winning. When it comes time to produce the goods on the day, the pressure’s on you.
HS: Where are you concentrating most of your time and energy right now?
I still think it’s important to see the up and coming riders and horses, but the reality is there’s only time in this job to work at the top end. My priority is ramping up to the WEG and right now we really are just focusing on the combinations important to that competition. When I’ve done a year in the job, then I think I’m going to make a few little changes to the way we’re doing things. We’ll see how that turns out. If we can get more good results that inspire the younger riders to get up and do it, then I will think we’ve done a good job.